Last week, I looked forward to matchups in the trenches that jumped out at me. The one I most wanted to see was Miami RT Seantrel Henderson working against South Florida DE/OLB Aaron Lynch. With Lynch moving around, left guard Jon Feliciano playing right tackle at times and Miami removing its starters in the blowout win, we didn't get a great sample size. Yet there were still a couple of things to take from this tape.
Lynch's weight loss since leaving Notre Dame two years ago, and the fact that he has yet to record a sack in a Bulls uniform, haven't swayed my opinion that he's a first-round talent. Listed at 244 pounds, Lynch showed he could lock out a 345-pound tackle in Henderson as a run defender, and his explosive burst off the edge tested Henderson in pass protection. Lynch also looks comfortable dropping into coverage, even if his greatest strength is attacking upfield. The one down note: He got caught guessing in terms of the snap count a little too much, and it could be a sign that he's getting frustrated.
As far as Henderson is concerned, there's still room for improvement when it comes to sustaining blocks as a run-blocker. He can do a better job with hand placement and rolling his hips on contact. However, he did a nice job of getting into position, and he's got the length to protect the edge in pass pro. He has all of the tools to push for early playing time at right tackle in the NFL if he can improve on his technique.
There are three individual matchups in the trenches to keep an eye on this weekend. The offensive lineman has more to gain in certain matchups, and vice versa. It's also important to keep in mind that defenders frequently move around. Even though these players won't butt heads on every snap, it will be productive to watch when they do.
At 6-foot-3, 309 pounds, Ferguson is big and strong enough to hold his ground in most one-on-one matchups, but he's playing too high and he'll have a tough time anchoring against Jackson unless he does a better job of staying low this week.
As the top-ranked offensive guard on our board, Jackson could be a first-round pick. At 6-4, 340 pounds, his size and brute strength are tremendous assets. They aren't the only reasons he's an outstanding drive-blocker, though. He plays with good pad level, so smaller defensive tackles have a difficult time getting under him, an attempt to negate his size advantage. Jackson is also an effective zone-blocker thanks to above-average balance and lateral quickness.
Ferguson has to continue to make strides as a hand fighter and improve his ability to get off blocks if he's to prevent Jackson from washing him down the line on zone runs.
In the passing game, Jackson can overset to the outside, and doing so will open the door for Ferguson to shoot inside. Ferguson is also still developing as a pass-rusher and he relies on the bull rush too much. Showing he can recognize false steps and exploit them would obviously help his stock.
Ferguson will have a tough time winning when Jackson's footwork is sound, though. Jackson is more than strong enough to anchor against Ferguson, and Jackson's width and balance make it tough to get around him.
Another aspect of this matchup: the players' hands. Jackson has to be aggressive and violent with his hands because Ferguson reads quarterbacks and he will get his hands up if Jackson allows him to disengage.
Watt is a scrapper who finds a way to overcome his weaknesses as a run-blocker with effort and a sound first step, but he's going to have a tough time neutralizing Sutton.
At 6-1, Sutton is on the shorter side for a defensive tackle and he doesn't appear to have great length on film. He can struggle to recover when blockers get into his frame. That's easier said than done, though. His explosive first step and heavy hands make it tough for blockers to lock on. But don't expect Sutton to give much ground when he doesn't win initially. He carries his 305 pounds well, has above-average core strength, and his low center of gravity make it tough to get under him. He even flashes the ability to anchor against and split double-teams. Watt, on the other hand, tends to play high, and his power base isn't quite as good.
Sutton, who recorded 13 sacks last season, is an excellent interior pass-rusher capable of exploiting one of Watt's biggest weaknesses, and that's his tendency to lunge. Sutton is an excellent hand fighter who preys on off-balance offensive linemen and uses their momentum against them when they get caught off-balance. His ability to knock blockers off-balance with his upper-body strength and redirect also will test Watt's ability to stay in front of him.
On the other hand, Watt should have some success holding his ground when his footwork is sound and he establishes good initial position. In addition, he is sure to get a little help from his friends and Sutton can be too quick to gear down when teams commit two blockers to him.
The 6-6, 330-pound Erving moved from defensive tackle to offensive tackle in spring 2012, and there's a lot to like about his upside. He generates above-average initial surge as a drive-blocker, and he has the foot speed to develop into an above-average zone-blocker. Throw in his 80-pound size advantage over Whitfield, and on paper, he has the clear advantage in the run game.
On the flip side, his relatively limited offensive tackle experience shows up at times. While he plays with an edge and flashes the ability to finish, Erving's inconsistent pad level and hand placement affect his ability to sustain and drive. Whitfield has enough upper-body strength and length to take advantage when he gets under Erving and his hands inside.
Last week, I used Whitfield as an example of how important the level of competition is when talking about production -- he recorded three of his 5.5 sacks against a Connecticut team that has had problems protecting the quarterback. He has an excellent chance to dampen that criticism going up against the talented Erving.
Here's why he could make the most of it. Erving has the length to protect the edge, the size to anchor and the lateral quickness to stay in front of most edge rushers -- including Whitfield. Yet Erving showed vulnerability when he got sloppy with his footwork and hand placement against Boston College. Whitfield is quick and flexible enough to turn the corner if he catches Erving short setting his feet.
Whitfield is at his best shooting his hands inside, pushing offensive tackles upfield and redirecting inside. Erving has to be more consistent with his hands and do a better job of sinking his hips to stay in front of him. It's also worth noting that Whitfield will move around and he will line up at inside linebacker in certain situations. He's tracking the quarterback well and quickly sifting through traffic when he rushes from that spot.